Joe Harris drained four shots beyond the arc and finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
Finally, one went the way of the Wahoos. Tony Bennett’s beleaguered Cavalier team managed to hang on to sweep rivals Virginia Tech for the first time since 2006. Despite a late-game rally from the Hokies, the Hoos managed to hold on to a 61-54 win in front of a raucous home crowd at the John Paul Jones Arena. After a couple of games in which the offense under-performed while the defense kept the score manageable, it came as a relief that the Hoos were able to put points on the board and have some of those long range shots fall.
“We’re a defensive-minded team and we know that’s what’s going to keep us in the game,” junior guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “Unfortunately against Duke, we played great defense but we weren’t able to make any shots. Today, we did both. We played defense and we were able to make some big shots.”
In the second half, the UVa HOOps band played “Livin’ on a Prayer” during a timeout, which might as well be Virginia’s basketball anthem this season. All year long, the Hoos have lived and died by the 3-point or the jumper in general. Saturday afternoon, all the shots seemed to fall and the team managed to hit the big baskets when necessary.
Even the foul line, where Virginia has struggled a bit this season, was kind to the Cavaliers. Down the stretch, with Virginia Tech fouling frantically, UVa sunk 7 of 10 free throws in the final minute to seal the victory. Despite 14 turnovers, Virginia held off their rivals as the clock wound down. Rather than succumbing to panic down the stretch, the Hoos remained confident and in control.
“I tried to stay calm with them,” Cavalier coach Tony Bennett said. “I just thought some of those turnovers were unforced or uncharacteristic. We said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t give anything up on the defensive end. We’re going to be fouled – be strong with the ball.'”
The Cavaliers found their 3-point rhythm again after a couple of games in which it seemed that the basket was a little smaller than usual. Virginia was 11-23 from 3-point land, and, for the ninth time this year, were better from beyond the arc than they were in front of it. Virginia Tech went with a zone defensive scheme around the perimeter at times and the hot-shooting Hoos managed to exploit it for some long-range bombs.
Zeglinski hit three big shots from downtown, all under heavy pressure. Two of his threes came with the shot clock winding down, as he was either off balance or falling backward. Both nearly kissed the roof of the arena before improbably dropping into the hoop and bringing the fans to their feet. Zeglinski also tied with sophomore Jontel Evans for a team-best 5 assists.
“[Malcolm] Delaney made some unbelievable ones at the end. [Zeglinski’s] might have rivaled his,” Bennett said. “Maybe we should tell him to shoot them like that all the time. Points are hard to come by for us, so whenever we can get them – whether it’s Jontel [Evans] hitting a big one or [Zeglinski] hitting some tough ones – that’s a cushion for us. [Zeglinski] does have a knack for hitting unconventional ones late in the game and at the end of the shot clock.”
The Hokies, whose normally fast-paced game was effectively slowed by the Cavaliers, had absolutely no help from their bench. Tech’s points all came from the starting five; the two bench players to see time on the court made absolutely no contributions in the form of rebounds, assists, blocks, or steals. It’s been the story of the season for Tech, whose starters have accounted for 280 of the team’s total 288 points.
The Cavaliers’ bench, on the other hand, came up big against their in-state rivals on Saturday. Freshman Akil Mitchell was a monster under the basket in the second half, ripping down seven defensive rebounds and recording a block. Mitchell withstood rough play from the Hokies’ Jeff Allen and Delaney, and added two baskets for good measure. Fellow freshman Joe Harris also came down with seven defensive boards in addition to scoring 15 points for his 14th career game in double figures. Harris had a complete game against the Hokies, snagging three steals, and scoring four huge 3-point shots.
Junior Assane Sene had seven rebounds and three baskets, including two crowd-pleasing dunks. Sene once again had to leave the game due to foul difficulty, but Mitchell and Harris took up his presence underneath.
“It was physical down there. It looked like they were really trying hard to block out, then going up and just pursuing the ball and coming down with it,” Bennett said of Mitchell and Harris’ play underneath. “There were a couple of crazy exchanges – us turning it over, them turning it over, kicking it around – and we just needed to come up with those rebounds. I thought they showed a nose for the ball and a level of toughness that we had to have. They’re undersized and they’re young, but by this stage of the game, you’ve just got to have a will for the ball and they came up with it. They battled.”
Senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan , after a shaky first half in which he only recorded thee points, hit the court hard in the second half, leaving the game to get checked out. Luckily, Farrakhan was only winded, and returned to the contest to score a couple huge baskets for the Hoos. It had been a long time coming for Virginia, and the team will savor this one while preparing for another key ACC match-up against Georgia Tech.
“Coach told us that we had to win this game, and for us to play to win. During stretches we were a little tentative but we made the play,” Farrakhan said. “It’s been kind of hard for us to finish out the game, but coach was reminding us that we had two time outs left and to be strong.”